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Bears: Kyle Fuller, absent Matt Forte get 2015 Brian Piccolo awards

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Bears: Kyle Fuller, absent Matt Forte get 2015 Brian Piccolo awards

Coming off not only one of the best seasons for a Bears rookie defensive back but also a smooth settling in on the cadence of NFL life, cornerback Kyle Fuller has been selected as the Bears’ 2015 Brian Piccolo Award winner.

Matt Forte, who won the rookie award in 2008, joined a handful of players (Mike Singletary, Shaun Gayle, Brian Urlacher, Charles Tillman, Olin Kreutz) to win the award as both rookie and vet. Forte did not attend the presentation ceremony and appears headed for a holdout, at least from voluntary activities, intended to create leverage for an early contract extension.

The awards reflect teammates’ assessments of loyalty, courage, sense of humor and dedication.

Coach John Fox recalled watching “Brian’s Song” as a teenager when the movie first came out. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said that the Piccolo story “grabbed the country.”

On the field Fuller tied with safety Ryan Mundy for team honors and led all NFL rookies with 4 interceptions, with Fuller also contributing 3 forced fumbles. Fuller was one of only two NFL players (Detroit safety James Ihedigbo) last season and one of only six rookies in the last 25 NFL seasons with at least three each of interceptions and forced fumbles.

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“None of this would have been possible alone,” Fuller said, giving thanks to God, family, the Bears organization and teammates for his successes. The award reflects courage, hard work and other traits, “and these were things I worked hard at growing up,” Fuller said.

Forte, in the process of seeking a contract extension going into this last season of his 2012 four-year deal, set an NFL record for running backs with 102 pass receptions (for 808 yards) last season to go with 1,038 rushing yards. His 1,846 combined yards were eighth-highest in franchise history, behind six seasons of Walter Payton and Forte’s own 2013 total of 1,933 yards.

“Growing up as a Bears fan, I know what this means to this [McCaskey] family,” said Bears offensive coordinator Adam Gase, who did the Forte award presentation. “Matt being a second-time award winner, winning as a rookie, we’re looking forward to working with him.”

Bears cut ties with linebacker Jerrell Freeman

Bears cut ties with linebacker Jerrell Freeman

The Bears began their slew of offseason moves by releasing inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.

Freeman, 31, signed a three-year, $12 million deal with the Bears in 2016.

In his first year in Chicago he amassed 110 tackles in 12 games but was suspended four games for PED use. He played in just one game lsat season before suffering a pectoral injury that placed him on IR. He then tested positive again for a performance-enhancing drug, resulting in a 10-game suspension that bleeds over into 2018 for two more games, wherever he winds up.

2017 Bears position grades: Outside Linebacker

2017 Bears position grades: Outside Linebacker

OUTSIDE LINEBACKER

2017 grade: C-

Level of need: High

Decisions to be made on: Willie Young (contract), Pernell McPhee (contract), Sam Acho (free agent), Lamarr Houston (free agent)

Possible free agent targets: DeMarcus Lawrence, Ezekiel Ansah, Adrian Clayborn, Connor Barwin, Kony Ealy

 

Would you believe that no true outside linebacker in this year’s free agent class had more sacks than Lamarr Houston did last year? Houston and the Rams’ Connor Barwin each had five, underscoring how rare it is for an elite edge rusher to make it to free agency.

 

There are a few that, for now, are due to hit the open market. DeMarcus Lawrence racked up 14 ½ sacks with the Dallas Cowboys last year, but played as a defensive end in a 4-3 scheme. The same goes for the Detroit Lions’ Ezekiel Ansah, who had a dozen sacks in 2017. But if either reaches free agency, it’d be a surprise -- again, pass-rushers with that kind of production rarely escape the franchise tag.

 

If Lawrence or Ansah do become available, the Bears would likely be a part of the feeding frenzy to sign either player. Whether they could convince either player that 1) Chicago is a desirable destination and 2) that they’d be just as, if not more, productive in a 3-4 base instead of a 4-3 is a different question.

 

The same goes for Atlanta’s Adrian Clayborn, who had 9 ½ sacks last year (including a ridiculous six-sack game) but played in a 4-3 and may not be looking to leave Atlanta. The Falcons, though, could be in a tricky salary cap situation with defensive lineman Dontari Poe and longtime kicker Matt Bryant both due to hit free agency.

 

Fangio’s scheme is malleable, though, and any of these players would be a fit in it one way or another. Spotrac estimates Lawrence would command an average annual salary of $14 million per year, while Ansah would be slightly lower at $13.2 million. Either way, either of those guys could command the biggest contract Pace has given a defensive player (although the Bears were prepared to give cornerback A.J. Bouye more than the $13.5 million average annual salary that he’s receiving with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

 

Both Willie Young and Pernell McPhee could be released this off-season, too, to free up cap room. Cutting Young would net $4.5 million in cap savings, while a release of McPhee would free up a little over $7 million, according to Spotrac. Of the two, Young may be the more likely guy to stick around, despite coming off a season-ending triceps injury. While he’ll be 33 next September, Young has 9 ½ sacks in the last two year while McPhee has eight (while playing in more games than Young). This may not be an either-or situation, though -- the Bears could very well cut both.

 

Houston is an interesting option to retain after he racked up four sacks in five games after returning to the Bears last December. He’s struggled to stay healthy in his career, though, and the Bears probably wouldn’t re-sign him and count on the 30-year-old to be a starter in 2018, especially considering the uncertain recovery status of Leonard Floyd. Sam Acho could be brought back as a solid depth option, too.

 

The success of this unit, though, will hinge more on Floyd than whatever the Bears are able to do in free agency or the draft. The Bears need their 2016 first-round pick to A) stay healthy and B) improve as an edge rusher after injuries have limited him to 22 games and 11 ½ sacks in his first two seasons. If every team needs three reliable pass-rushers, the Bears will need to pencil in Floyd next to Akiem Hicks (who, for what it’s worth, is more of a run-stuffer, but did total 8 ½ sacks in 2017) and then either a free agent or a draft pick.

 

The most likely route to land that third pass rusher, though, is probably through the draft unless a top talent like Lawrence, Ansah or Clayborn hits free agency -- and then matches with the Bears.